'One down 24 to go.' Willie Cauley-Stein is pushing Sacramento Kings toward playoffs
For one night, the Kings were not the butt of NBA jokes.
In the wake of Sunday night’s trade that sent three-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi to New Orleans – a transaction for which general manager Vlade Divac was heavily criticized for not getting enough in return – the remaining players in Sacramento were deemed a collection of unwatchable misfits.
But instead of beginning to tumble in the Western Conference, the Kings pulled together Thursday night and beat the Denver Nuggets 116-100 at Golden 1 Center in Game 1 of the post-Cousins era.
“They was killing us, killing Vlade, killing everybody,” said guard Ty Lawson following the game. “But I think everybody on this team’s got heart. We’re all men; we’re not just going to lay down. We’re going to play hard … we’re not going to lay down and tank and what everybody else was saying. We’ve just got to show everybody.”
With a stretch of home games against weak teams, the Kings could build on their confidence and make a stretch run at their first postseason since 2006. Thursday’s win pulled Sacramento within a half game of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The Kings (25-33) host slumping Charlotte (24-33), Minnesota (22-35) and Brooklyn (league-worst 9-47) in their next three games.
While Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway had good starts with Sacramento, there are still things to sort out on the court. The Kings are transitioning from a power team to a running unit.
“We have like nine, 10 wings on the team,” Lawson said. “It’s a crazy-built team, but we’re going to make it work. Everyone wants to win; we want to get to the playoffs. That’s the goal, so we’re going to try to work toward it.”
Guards Garrett Temple and Malachi Richardson are out with hamstring injuries, with Temple being closer to a return than Richardson, who will be sidelined another three to five weeks.
Guard Arron Afflalo also missed Thursday’s game with a sore hamstring.
So theoretically, the Kings will get stronger as their health improves.
In the meantime, Hield had 16 points and six rebounds against the Nuggets, and Tyreke Evans scored 15 points. They have been welcomed into a locker room that has been good all season.
“We’ve got a very solid locker room,” said Kings coach Dave Joerger. “Even though a couple people aren’t there, guys have an opportunity to step forward in leadership and hug on each other. There’s lots of smiles and hugs right now, and (we got) the first one out of the way. ... So I think that’s positive.”
But it’s also wise not to make too much of one game. The first game after the All-Star break can produce unusual results as players return from a week off.
Lawson said the wing players shouldn’t face a big adjustment playing without Cousins and that the running style suits centers Kosta Koufos and Willie Cauley-Stein.
“I know me, Arron and Kosta played in that kind of system and Willie is built for it,” Lawson said of the trio’s time in Denver under former Kings coach George Karl. “So is Ben (McLemore), and Tyreke is like another playmaker/point guard. We were built for this type of system, and I think we all like to play this type of system.”